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Seattlites and sunglasses enthusiasts proudly assert the claim, but I've found no comparative analysis to back it up.

Typical claim

Terry D. Seidler, a Seattle tour guide, makes the typical statement in a list of Seattle Firsts and attributes it to the P.E.O. Record:

Seattle sells more sunglasses per capita than any other major city in the nation.

The P.E.O. (Philanthropic Educational Organization) Record Mar-Apr 1997

The online archive of the P.E.O. Record goes back no further than December 2003, so it's difficult to know if the P.E.O. provides scientific support.

Sales-banter Juststification

Darwin Liao, director of the Seattle Sunglasses Company's downtown shop, repeats the mantra in a July 2011 interview with Sunglasses magazine:

SG: Do you think the weather in Seattle has any impact on your business?

DL: Seattle has highest per-capita sunglasses sales than any other major city in the nation.

Liao goes on to cite an active-outdoors population, the mountain geography, and tourism as reasons for the perennially strong sales:

We do have a lot of water and people are active year round—whether they’re runners or cyclists—so they’re looking for eye protection, which is why we do sell a fair amount of bronze lenses and lighter color lenses. And we’ve got two mountain ranges where we get low sun at the horizon, so we get that really bright blue sky, sunny mornings, and all winter long when you’re driving, there’s a lot of glare. And even when it’s overcast, there’s a significant amount of light. But you definitely do see the seasonalities as well. We’ll definitely pick up sales in mid-February, as people are getting ready to go on spring break—we’ve got a lot of snow birds that go down to Arizona, Palm Springs, CA, or Hawaii. But, of course, the traditional strong months in spring and summer are just as strong for us because we’ve got tourists.

His explanation of popularity is plausible, but it is qualitative and makes no comparison. A salesman in California or Florida, states famous for their sunshine, could easily make a similar statement.

Without hard sales figures from stores in Seattle and other American cities, there is no way to disprove the claim of the highest sales. In the end, it's easy to dismiss this as sales banter.

Is there any data available to prove his claim?

A Seattle sunset

Photo: Seattle Sunset from the Space Needle by Mohammed Kamel

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Here is a link with the claim- back in 1976! –  user14343 Jun 27 '13 at 15:38
    
From the Spokesman-Review, January 15, 1979: "Besides being first in sunglasses, the area is second in per capita sunburn product sales." Thanks, @Paul! –  Iain Elder Jul 1 '13 at 14:09
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1 Answer

The United States Census Bureau (USCB) aggregates sales data for sunglasses merchant wholesalers into NAICS industry class 423460, called Ophthalmic goods merchant wholesalers. This class includes merchant wholesalers of binoculars, eyeglasses, and other optical goods, but not cameras.

The USCB's report of its 2007 economic census contains data that strongly suggests the Seattlites' claim is false.

Washington has low ophthalmic sales per capita

The report contains a table that sorts each US state for which data exists by total sales in USD. It includes a computed per capita column that we can use as evidence against the claim if we know that Seattle is in the state of Washington.

US states sorted by total sales of opthalmic goods

For clarity, I removed the row that represents the US total sales and the rows for states that have no data.

It's fairly clear that in this class the highest sales per capita ($262) goes to Rhode Island.

Washington has one of the lower sales per capita ($9).

The top five states by sales (New York, California, Florida, Georgia, and Rhode Island) all have sales per capita ($87, $38, $56, $59, $262) many times more than that of Washington.

The accompanying Industry Snapshot Hot Report links to a large-scale color-coded map of sales per capita by state. States with higher sales per capita are colored darker.

US states colored by sales per capita of ophthalmic goods

For clarity, I moved the legend closer to the map than in the source image.

When the states are viewed like this, Washington appears insignificant. What stand out again are California, Florida, New York, and Rhode Island.

What about Seattle?

All the data I could find aggregates at the state level, no finer. The report is not detailed enough to prove that Seattle sells less sunglasses than some other city. I believe the state-level evidence renders the possibility highly unlikely.

What if everyone in Florida wears contact lenses?

Because of the way the report aggregates industries, we could be being mislead by high sales in lines other than sunglasses. Again, I think it's unlikely. Besides, I've heard no-one make proud claims about how myopic their citizens are.

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Looking at statewide data to answer a question about one city in that state--even if it is the largest city--is pointless. As if that weren't bad enough, you're looking at data for wholesalers, not retailers. And it includes sales of a lot more things than just sunglasses--all eyeglasses and binoculars. –  user13624 Apr 29 '13 at 19:50
    
@skeptic'sskpetic I accept that the anaylsis is weakened by such broad aggregations, but it still strongly indicates to me that the claim is false. Do you know where I could find more detailed information to make a stronger case? For example, what percentage of the opthalmic sales in each state are for sunglasses? Is there a way to break the states down into smaller geographical groups like metropolitan areas or counties? I couldn't find a such a detailed report on the USCB site. –  Iain Elder Apr 30 '13 at 13:12
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I can't accept that sales of any kind of spectacles, contact lenses, laser surgery aftercare products, etc. would be in a constant proportion to sales of sunglasses. Also I doubt that "opthalmic goods" stats would cover most retail sunglasses, which are sold through fashion channels. –  slim Jun 12 '13 at 12:17
    
@slim Good point. Market research group GFK tracks sunglasses sales in its optics and acoustics solution and its fashion solution. They claim to offer "weekly and monthly report[sic] on what sunglasses and frames are selling, in what distribution channels, at what rate and at what price." They claim "store level" performance analytics. I doubt they part freely with the data. –  Iain Elder Jun 12 '13 at 18:05
    
Jobson Optical Research claims to be the "the leading source of business intelligence in the optical industry". They offer an Optical Business Barometer (OBB) that tracks the "business trends of Independent Eye Care Professionals on a monthly basis". The data "is tabbed on several filters including [...] US Census region, [and] annual revenues". Is the OBB detailed enough to answer the question? I'm not enough of a spendthrift to find out: a one-year subscription costs $3,000. –  Iain Elder Jun 12 '13 at 18:26
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protected by Community Jun 27 '13 at 19:00

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